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Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (Revised)

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  200 ratings  ·  21 reviews
Punctuated with remarkable case studies, this book explores extraordinary encounters between hermaphrodites--people born with "ambiguous" sexual anatomy--and the medical and scientific professionals who grappled with them. Alice Dreger focuses on events in France and Britain in the late nineteenth century, a moment of great tension for questions of sex roles. While feminis ...more
Paperback, 268 pages
Published March 1st 2000 by Harvard University Press (first published 1998)
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Lois Bujold
Oct 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: readers possessing bodies
Recommended to Lois by: mentioned in another book

Lucid and enlightening. A focused history of the medical (and thus social) treatment of hermaphrodism, something that has been with mammals since the beginning, mainly restricted to Britain and France in the 19th and early 20th centuries, at a time when medicine was advancing rapidly and the definitions of everything were undergoing profound changes.

First published 1998, so twenty years old now. The earlier histories presumably hold good; the epilogue on then-contemporary procedures has now beco
Oct 27, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Exactly the sort of book I've been looking for. The historical approach to the subject explained a great deal about how we've come to think about "hermaphrodites." The book also points out how our notion of gender has hardly changed (it's almost become more strict) and how medicine deals with intersexed people. Dreger touches on almost everything I know of in gender theory. She addresses the history of sex from the hermaphrodite perspective, she addresses the development of sexualities, points o ...more
Neil Cochrane
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The title may be off-putting for members of the queer community, but in my opinion this book is an excellent addition to the arsenal of evidence against biological essentialism in matters of sex. The author takes clear aim at a medical establishment that, as a whole, put maintaining the existing worldview at least on a level with providing care to their patients, if not ABOVE providing care, as the kind of "care" given was often inextricably tainted by that worldview (as Dreger put it, you canno ...more
Michael Walther
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting book that attempts to advise medical professionals who treat intersexed people. There are many varieties of intersexuality (a person is born with male and female characteristics). These can be mild to severe. The severe cases are very rare, but they are very difficult to treat. Dreger challenges the “modernistic” treatment protocols which called for sex assignment early in life. The theory of this protocol was that it would lead to a happier and more successful life rather ...more
Sep 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone!
This book surprised and appalled me. Surprised because I didn't realize how subjective determining a person's sex is - the baby is born, the doctor takes a look, and then makes a declaration of boy or girl. Appalled because if a baby isn't easily identified as boy or girl in that look, the baby is probably in for a lifetime of surgeries and medical humiliations that are completely unnecessary health-wise but make the doctors feel better because they "fixed" a "problem".

Such a great book. I high
Jul 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A really sensational book.
Chris Nagel
Sep 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
The butler did it.
Jul 01, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is compelling reading.
Jun 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
In my mind, this book was absolutely magnificent.
May 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book was really intriguing and did a great job both introducing and expanding on topics I'd never explored in depth. It discusses how people with ambiguous genitalia fared when encountering scientific and medical men in an age when it was believed science would eventually solve everything. As someone living with chronic illness, I can readily sympathize with the experience of intersexuals whose encounters with medicine are marked by paternalism and deceit. I found myself in particular agree ...more
Jul 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
There are a lot of important issues raised in this book. It's an interesting look at how we've treated those with ambiguous genitalia over the the last few centuries. I'll be interested to see if this work and others have caused a shift in the practices done to infants. It's noteworthy that the 19th Century Intersex persons have no voice as they did not leave a record, and we only have the medical case histories. I wonder if how we treat Intersex individuals is the deepest test of our humanity? ...more
Oct 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a really nice, succinct and quite easily written (given the abundance of medical terminology used because of the topic's interdisciplinarity) intervention in the history of medicine of the late 19th and the early 20th century. The book provides a glance on how the medicine was shaped by the society and the culture and in its turn shaped them as well. It made me realize again how little in fact have changed in medical reasoning regarding the question of people who are born with "ambiguous ...more
Nov 29, 2008 is currently reading it
I've been reading this for a's really good, so don't let that put you off! I read the first half (or more) and have been taking a break. This book focuses on medical treatment of disorders of sex development (DSD, which is the modern medical term; hermaphroditism is the term correct to the time period covered in the book) in England, France, and Germany (I think) in the late 1700s through early 1900s. It's really a study in the culture of gender, sex, and medicine in that period...fasc ...more
Rori Rockman
Nov 08, 2014 rated it liked it
The epilogue was the crux of this book. It is here that Dreger delves into the moral and cultural implications of "correcting" unusual genitals. The main part of the book provides a rich historical context, but it can get dry at times. I suspect Dreger was trying to present as unbiased of a history as was reasonable possible and I certainly respect that. However, I think where Dreger shines as a writer is when she inserts herself into the text a bit and provides her own opinions and analysis. I ...more
Apr 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a great introduction to intersex. The main problem is that it was written over a decade ago. So it must be read in a 20th century context. She does a great job summarizing over a century's worth of history. ...more
Aug 28, 2015 rated it liked it
An academic overview of the "problem" of ambiguous genitalia, intersex children and adults, and those living as one sex (and even marrying) when (medically speaking) there were internal organs of the other sex. ...more
May 23, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
See highlights for sample tidbits from the book with interesting trivia, phrasing, metaphors and facts !!! Well researched and well written.
Nov 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Very interesting insights into the medical side of gender.
Just a Girl Fighting Censorship
Part of my 2015 Special 50 Book challenge- A Book From the bottom of your to-read list
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Alice Dreger is a Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University.

"In a phrase, I do social justice work in medicine and science. I do that through my research, writing, speaking, and advocacy. . . Much of my professional energies has gone to using history to improve the medical and social treatment of people born with norm-challengi

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